Slumming In London

In the 1880’s, encouraged by numerous newspaper articles and books, for which the authors had donned the garb of the poverty-stricken slum-dwellers and tramps and reported back on their experiences amongst the East End, a fad grew up in Victorian London whereby the wealthier citizens would go “slumming”, in order to catch glimpses of the less well off in their natural habitat.

These excursions – “slummibusses” as they were dubbed by Punch – were, for a time at least, extremely popular, and all manner of wealthy Westenderds set out on these explorations of the lower echelons of the Victorian metropolis.

But, as can be seen from the following article, which appeared in The Dubuque Daily Herald on August 1st, 1886, the English enthusiasm for paying nocturnal visits to the London slums was sniffed at by Americans, who saw the craze as being indicative of the British class system:-


An English Pastime That Has Not Obtained A Foothold In New York

“There is one English fashion which the Anglomaniscs have not yet succeeded in introducing in New York,” said the European buyer of a large silk house a few days ago, “and that is slumming.

In London, visiting the slums is believed to be about the jolliest and most fetching dissipation known to the fashionable world.

The subject has been the butt of the comic weekly artists of London for some months now, and no well-regulated member of society can afford to miss a slumming party during the season.”


“They do it up in great shape over there, you know.

An Englishman must dress for every expedition, no matter whether it is a trip to Africa or a walk to the corner.

In slumming, women run to cloaks and men to long coats. These outer garments are believed to ward off disease, though exactly how they do it when their wearers breathe the foul air of the slums is difficult to image.

When they return to the house of their hostess or chaperone, the young people all throw off these wraps in the passage, and the wraps are aired by the servants and returned by messenger the following day.

A supper, more or less elaborate, follows the ‘slum,’ as the excitement makes all hands hungry and talkative.”

An illustration showing homeless people in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Homeless of Whitechapel. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


“There are always two policemen with the party, and as a rule not more than five or six people go along.

London’s tramps are liable to prove fully and ill-tempered when their homes are invaded.


The party start from the hostess’ house in carriages at 11 o’clock or perhaps midnight, although that is pretty late, and drive to the heart of the London slums.

Here they wander through the quarters of the poor, the outcast and the lost ones of the great town, pushing their way into rooms where drunken louts, repulsive women, and
scraggy and unkempt children lie sleeping like so many worms in a bait-box.


They go everywhere, for the police do not recognize the rights of any of the paupers, and bang their way ruthlessly ahead.

The highborn men and women gaze upon their dirty fellow creatures, visit their opium dens, their drinking places, dance halls – or, rather, cellars – and invade their living rooms.

When they’ve had all that their stomachs and eyes will stand, they return to their supper.”

A photograph of a family in their room.
A Family In Their Room


“It never occurs to them, of course, that the cost of one such meal as they discuss would lift a mountain of misery and woe from the backs of the poor they have just visited.

Philanthropy is not a proper fad now across the water.


Though most Americans would be apt to sneer at slumming in London, there is really a reason for it.

Here, you know, we are familiar with all grades of life, from the lowest to the highest; but the majority of English aristocrats know nothing of people who are not in their own circle, and the lower quarters of the town are full of novelties for them.”


“Is there no slumming New York?”

“O, occasionally parties of men send down to police headquarters and secure the services of a detective for a trip through Baxter, Mulberry, and Mott Streets; but slumming is not recognized as a fashionable amusement.”